April 30, 1999
In his book Democracy in America, the 19th Century political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville described the United States as having two distinct and contradictory strands to its culture, both equal in strength. One he described as “individualism,” and the other as “communitarianism.”
In discussing this analysis from 200 years ago, I often think of two movies, both considered American classics and each representing the two strands in American life that de Tocqueville referred to. One is High Noon; the other is It’s a Wonderful Life. Each film uniquely represents a clear vision of de Tocqueville’s strands.
Interestingly, both films were made not too long after the Second World War, during a period of rabid anti-communism and growing American affluence. It was a time when the United States was redefining itself and its relationship to the world. That struggle for definition, the attempt to clarify a national character, was wonderfully represented in film and television. These two films, more than any others that I can think of, captured the twin and opposing directions of our culture.
High Noon is the story of a marshal and his wife out west in the 1880s taming the frontier. It is a story with ultimately only one character, the marshal, played by Gary Cooper. There is a secondary character, his wife, a Quaker and pacifist played by Grace Kelly. The other players in the movie are the townspeople, who are depicted as being somehow smaller and less than the hero. Then there are the bad guys, each one conforming in behavior, dress and attitude to his evil counterparts.
It is a simple story, really: the marshal is a peace-loving man. He has been the marshal of other towns during the westward migration, and he and his loving and supportive wife are upstanding members of what appears to be a close-knit town.
The marshal learns by telegraph that six bad guys are coming to his new town with the intention of getting revenge against him for some wrong he has committed. Throughout the film, there is always the sense of a clock ticking, of time passing, of constant anxiety about the future. Slowly, as the fear mounts and time ticks away, the townspeople abandon the marshal.
Grace Kelly’s character begs her husband to abandon the town. After all, she reasons, the townspeople have abandoned him. But Cooper’s character is a man of deep and unshakable principle. It takes men of unshakable principle to keep a culture of individualism from collapsing into a culture of anarchy and despair. His commitment firm, he awaits likely death, outnumbered and outgunned. The townspeople hide like mice.
Finally, at noon (“high noon,” that is) the showdown comes. One good man against many unredeemable evil men. The marshal steadfastly, emotionlessly outdraws one after the other until there are but two left. The real climax occurs when one of the bad guys takes aim at the marshal’s back. The marshal is focused on the other remaining bad man. There is a shot, and the man aiming at the marshal’s back falls dead. The camera pans to Grace Kelly, a smoking rifle in her hands. To save her husband, she sacrifices her principles and her belief system. The marshal then kills the last of the bad guys.
In the end, he is the only character left with his principles intact. Remember that his wife had first wanted to abandon the town. But in violation of her own Quaker principles, she kills a man — shoots him in the back, even. In this metaphor of individualism there is only, and always only, one hero.
The couple then loads their belongings onto a wagon and ride off into the sunset. There is a profound sadness to this ending, for one senses that this man of principle and his wife will never really find a home nor a community. They are truly alone in the universe, as we in the audience are.
High Noon sets up a world without ambiguity. It is about the migration west and the “European” taming of a continent, one armed family at a time. The west was unconquered, free and untamed. It was a place where the strongest individual went to make a life for himself and where only the strongest survived. When communities formed, with all their complexity and demands, and always weaker than the individual, the stoic individual simply continued on alone westward.
All cultures have their archetypes, images and symbols that represent the character of that culture and the character of a culture’s psyche. High Noon represents the American archetype about the stoic individual who triumphs over evil in spite of the social order.
On the other hand, there’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
The pivotal scene in It’s a Wonderful Life comes when the main character, played by Jimmy Stewart, is drunk on a bridge on a cold Christmas Eve. He’s a father of three who is about to commit suicide. He’s the very image of a human alone: cold, despairing and weak.
So here we have the mirror image of the paradigm in High Noon. In High Noon, the key is to not fail oneself. In It’s a Wonderful Life, the key is to not fail the community. In High Noon, the mistake would have been to identify with the community, to accept one’s interdependence with others. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s mistake is that he forgets the interdependence of community.
The story begins in a small Midwestern city in the early 1940s. The U.S. has emerged from the Great Depression and is now on the verge of war. The movie follows the hero from childhood. A formative moment comes when, as a child, Jimmy Stewart saves his younger brother from drowning. All the while, Stewart grows up with one dream for himself: to leave his boring hometown and see the world — which means he really wants to be the individualist of the American archetype and live life for himself.
As Stewart’s character grows up, he becomes attracted to a young woman played by Donna Reed but suppresses his feelings for her in order to hold onto his dream of being free of the attachments of his community. In the meantime, his brother goes off to war and Stewart tries to enlist, but is turned down because of the hearing loss he sustained in trying to save his drowning brother. Stewart can’t even use the Army as an escape — his ties to the community are just too strong.
Against his wishes, he inherits his father’s business, a building and loan company. (In those days, a building and loan association took deposits and made its money from mortgage lending, and functioned almost like a business cooperative.)
Stewart’s nemesis in the movie is a commercial bank and its president. Notice that in this movie, the enemy is both an institution and a man, the owner of the bank. The bank president — played by Lionel Barrymore — is an overweight, self-indulgent character. He is a man who lives only for himself, the individualist. Interestingly, he is also in a wheelchair; the man committed to individualism is shown as a man who literally cannot stand alone.
The crisis in the movie occurs when one of Jimmy Stewart’s employees, his uncle, accidentally loses a month’s worth of deposits, which are then found by the bank president. Stewart’s savings and loan is due to be audited, and if the money isn’t found, they will be forced to declare bankruptcy.
Stewart’s institution has been dedicated to lending to the poor so that they can own their own homes — it’s a service that Stewart knows is vital to his community. He knows that the bank would prefer to destroy these homes and stop lending to the poor, which would destroy the community.
With the money nowhere in sight, Stewart’s character fall into despair and blames himself for failing his community. While he is contemplating suicide on a bridge over a freezing river, he meets an angel, Clarence. Clarence tells Stewart he is only a “second-class angel” and needs to do a good deed in order to earn his wings.
(Keep in mind, by contrast, that there is no God in High Noon. Grace Kelly abandons her faith in order to save her man.)
In order to demonstrate the value of his life to Stewart’s character, Clarence shows him how different life would have been had he not been born and how much worse off so many people would have been. Stewart is ultimately taught that one person can make a difference, but only as part of a community.
Eventually, despair lifts off of Stewart like a wispy veil of illusion. He returns home for Christmas to find that all the people of the town have come together to donate the money it will take to save the building and loan. Even the bank auditors come to the gathering. In this movie, even evil is allowed some form of redemption. And the community proves that it can save the individual and make a difference in the life of each person.
In this ending, the hero not only doesn’t ride off into the sunset, he ultimately decides that there is nowhere better to be than here in his small hometown, immersed in the community and accepting of faith.
The conflict in High Noon is settled with a gun, while the conflict in It’s a Wonderful Life is settled by the heart.
What do these two movies have to do with the killing of children by children at Columbine?
Whether we like it or not, studies have shown that the truest version of who we are as a country is the archetype represented in the film High Noon. In 1985, Robert Bellah and Associates published the findings of five years of research by a team of sociologists from the University of California. The purpose of the project was to explore America and discover if, as a people, we had a consistent value system and what it was.
The project’s findings were published in a book entitled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Bellah and his team discovered that indeed America does have a singular value, “individualism.” In other words, the study suggests that America now lives in a constant state of High Noon.
Even the 1960s were ultimately a time of individualism. We may have lived in communes and talked about shared resources, but the real language of the time — and the real culture fighting for ascendance — was manifested through sayings like “Do your thing” and “Express yourself.” As a young man, I was in the center of what was called a “cultural revolution.” And even in my own life, I have followed the life paths of many of the people I knew then. There is no irony at all to me that the vast majority of these people chose the most individualistic of careers: they became, in disproportionate numbers, things like therapists, attorneys and academics. These are all careers that, to a large degree, require the least amount of interdependence on a community.
In other words, as a country, we may have flirted with the idea of It’s a Wonderful Life, and I believe we would like to believe that this is how we really behave, but the High Noon archetype is the one that’s truly paramount in everyday American life.
And where are we now? It’s a world of constant change, and the reality for many is a constantly shifting frontier. For the most part, the community has collapsed, the extended family has collapsed and the nuclear family has collapsed. We have kids and families who don’t go to public places anymore. They rent movies at home rather than go to the movies because the movie theater is full of people. Even within the family, shared time is minimal — there’s too many other ways for the modern family to spend its time. Parents watch one TV while the kids watch their own or play with their computer.
We have a whole generation of kids who don’t really hold down a job until after college. If they do have a job while in their teens, it is less because the family needs them to contribute to household expenses than because they want to earn some discretionary money for themselves. In Littleton, Colorado, one of the shooters drove a BMW. These kids, for the most part, have no concept of interdependence with other human beings.
Kids learn early on that they are effectively on their own. Psychotics are defined as particularly lacking in empathetic capacity. The shooters in Littleton obviously lacked that capacity.
Empathy is arrived at through an intuitive sense of interdependence, the notion that our survival is absolutely linked to the well being of others in a dynamic of reciprocity. What happens when that belief disappears? When, as in High Noon, you believe that there is really only one person in the whole movie — you — and that others are only marginally important?
And if you cannot see others as fully human, then ultimately, you can’t see yourself as fully human. Finally, the lives of others have little value to you — and in the end, even your own life has very little value in this isolated state.
Guns, media violence and computer-generated violence reinforce the essential despair of the individualist. For many, life is a wilderness frontier. Unconnected to others, they are also unconnected to themselves. With no other story or archetype to work with, kids like the shooters in Colorado work from a storyline in which they are the only possible hero in a world of enemies. Feeling the despair of Jimmy Stewart on the bridge, they find redemption in playing Gary Cooper on the dusty street.
For these kids, lost and adrift, the gun comes to represent the only alternative to community. It represents power and, really, an agent for change. Because these kids know, somewhere deep down, that something is very wrong in their lives and in the world around them.
It was Mao Tse Tung who said, “Power comes out of the barrel of a gun.” The American myth of personal power in the world is intrinsically tied to the gun — it allows us to change the world with the flexing of a single finger on a trigger. How tempting.
Viewed in that light, the actions of the Columbine shooters makes more sense. Their actions are indefensible, to be sure, but we can begin to see that this act of violence wasn’t completely random — there’s a cause and this was the tragic effect.
The disease of America is individualism — the shootings at Columbine prove this. The cure is the creation and nurturance of community. Until we change the paradigm and slowly diminish the power of the prevailing archetype, murder will be part of the American way of life. And we’re exporting that way of life: in 1997, a lone gunman shot down twenty school children in Scotland. The people there blamed it on the invasion of American culture. Up to that point, there had never been a High Noon in Scotland.
The emotions of individualism are fear, anger and distrust. The character is egocentric. These traits are the psychic foundation of the myth of rugged individualism.
The emotions of people connected to a community are love, hope and trust. The character is giving and connecting. These are the traits that form the foundation of the myth of community. Just ask Clarence.